Why creating huge games ISN'T your dream job

Opinion: Development veteran Cliff Harris offers some career advice...

When Infinity Ward imploded recently - and the majority of its top staff were fired or left - there was a lot of press attention and surprise.

Yet the reaction from most people, like me, who are ex-mainstream industry (and many who are still in it) was to say: "Whoa, so it's no different for you guys?"

The Call of Duty franchise was a license to print money, but apparently even that cannot persuade management that there are some game development staff who are literally worth their weight in gold.

You wouldn't think it from the working practices in many triple-A studios. Game developers not only earn lower than jobs in other areas of software engineering, but they are often made to work insane hours. Not by contract - something that can be agreed upon in advance and understood - but by a macho culture of sleeping-bags under desks and 'guilt-tripping' aimed at people who might want to spend the weekend or even an evening with their family.


It's no surprise that this culture exists in such a young, and apparently 'exciting' industry. There are 100 applicants for every job, and people are prepared to 'do what it takes' to get in. Desperate wannabes in Hollywood might end up taking their clothes off to get that dodgy first job. In the games industry, they sleep under their desks.

The real tragedy of this is that it works for nobody. it doesn't work for the staff (obviously) and it isn't in the best interests of the company or the shareholders either.

A big cause of this culture is that managers have a complete failure to understand what makes a programmer (for example) 'good'
or 'bad'.

Measuring the proficiency of someone who effectively types a few lines of gobbledygook every 20 minutes is not easy. An experienced software engineer doing code reviews can tell you, but managers tend to prefer simple measures like 'lines of code written' or 'time spent in the office'. Hence the sleeping bags.

This results in a huge disparity between developers' true worth and their rewards. Some programmers really ARE worth ten times what others are worth, but you never see this reflected in salaries. You can understand it from the managers' point of view. Imagine trying to evaluate a footballer's worth if you don't understand the rules of football and can't watch them play.

The problem is compounded because studios rarely manage to take the senior coders (the ones most likely to have a grip on all this) and promote them to senior management. Partly, this is because they learn to hate and despise the role when they are on the other side; but mostly it's because by the time they have the experience, they leave for greener pastures.


The industry doesn't encourage experienced staff to stay. At 35, I was considered an amusingly old man in my last job. When I look back, almost everyone I know has left. Some quit the industry to go into banking jobs; most quit to go indie, where even if you do work long hours, you reap the rewards.

The end result of all this is huge staff turnover, poor morale, management that treats its staff with suspicion, comparatively low wages and very long hours. Traditional stories of how tough it is to start your own business seem backwards to me - someone who earns more now than he did working for a large triple-A studio.

I'm a typical of example of how the high churn rate in the industry is counter-productive. I spent years at two triple-A studios, learning, getting better and better as a coder and a software engineer. Then I left, to earn more money and experience less grief. The triple-A studios seem now to be acting just as training facilities for indies.

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